Labors of Love

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I first heard of Will Durant, author of the 11-volume Story of Civilization, reading Isaac Asimov’s memoirs in the 1990s. In 2000, I read Durant’s The Life of Greece, the second volume of that series. I hadn’t read much history up to that point. Three things surprised me about the book. First, was the level of detail despite the scope, which seemed to cover all aspects of civilization. Second was the writing itself. It never occurred to me that history (or more generally, nonfiction) could be anything but unordained. (This was clearly Asimov’s influence on me,) But Durant’s writing was a revelation for me. He used words with precision, he painted with them, and though he was clear, he made the reader rise to him rather than writing down to them. Third, was the way that Durant inserted subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) opinions in his writing, often one-line remarks at the end of a paragraph that acted as summary judgement.

Since that first reading in 2000, I’ve made it through all but the last 2 volumes of Story of Civilization. I’ve also read all of Durant’s other books, except for his early autobiographical Transition. Reading Story of Civilization over two decades, I kept coming back to the thought that this was a labor of love that Durant and his wife Ariel spent their entire lives working on. Simon & Schuster published the first volume in 1935 with the concluding volume published 40 years later in 1975. (In between it helped but Simon & Schuster on the map and earned the Durant’s a Pulitzer Prize.) I was fascinated by the idea that a passion could be so gripping. I read Will and Ariel Durant’s Dual Autobiography in which they discuss the development of the book, and in doing so, I was envious of a big lifelong project like that. I was also daunted by it.


In 2016, I began reading Dumas Malone’s 6-volume biography of Thomas Jefferson. I’d previously read Willard Sterne Randall’s biography of Jefferson, but I wanted something more in-depth. Malone’s biography was just what I was looking for. It was the first scholarly biography I’d read. I read it somewhat piecemeal, a volume here, two volumes there, so that I didn’t finish it until 2018. When I finished it, I had a better understanding of Jefferson–taking into account that some of what Malone wrote had been overcome by events: for instance, Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings.

To my surprise, I was even more interested in how a person spends a lifetime on a labor of love such as this, even while going blind. I searched around and found a wonderful biography of Dumas Malone by William C. Hyland, Jr. titled Long Days With Mr. Jefferson. As much as I enjoyed Malone’s books, I think I liked his own biography even more because that passion, that focus, that attention to detail comes shining through.


A recent issue of The New Yorker had an obituary of the legendary editor Robert Gottlieb written by David Remnick. The list of writers that Gottlieb has edited is remarkable, and among them is Robert A. Caro, beginning with The Power Broker, his biography of Robert Moses, and on through the first four volumes of Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson. The New Yorker piece mentioned a documentary by Gottlieb’s daughter, Lizzie Gottlieb, Turn Every Page, which details the decades-long relationship between Gottlieb and Caro as they worked together on these five books. The other night, after reading the piece, I sat down to watch the documentary and I immediately thought of Will Durant and Dumas Malone and these lifelong labors of love.

Over the years I have read six of Caro’s books: The Power Broker, The Path to Power, Means of Ascent, Master of the Senate, The Passage of Power, and Working. I read the latter because, much like Will and Ariel Durant and Dumas Malone, I’m fascinated by people who spend their lives in labors of love. How did they get started? How did they manage to maintain or resupply their enthusiasm over the years? Did they ever want to give up? How did they handle frustration?

In that same New Yorker obituary was a reference to Gottlieb’s own memoir, Avid Reader. As soon as I saw the title I knew I was going to read it. I’d never heard of Gottlieb before I’d read his obituary in the New York Times a bit earlier, but I wanted to know just what kind of avid reader he was. I did something I rarely do. I set aside the book I had been reading (President Garfield by C.W. Goodyear) and started in on Avid Reader. I wasn’t sorry. Here was a man whose lifelong labor of love was reading and I was and am severely impressed by him.


Asimov’s was a great explainer. That was his labor of love, whether it was in his science fiction stories, his thousands of essays on science, or his books on history, the Bible and Shakespeare. He spent his life explaining things to his audience. Will Durant’s labor of love was unification. How does one tell the unified story of human civilization with all of its parts, the people, the culture, the art, the politics, the religion, the science, the professions, all of it interweaved and interrelated. Robert A. Caro’s labor of love, it seems to me, is the research. He wants to answer specific questions with facts, not assumptions. He wants to dig through thousands of pages of documents, to turn every page until he uncovers the piece of paper that explains it all.

I’m still too unfocused to know for sure what my labor of love is. For a long time I thought it was writing, but more and more, I think it is learning. I’m curious about everything, I want to know everything I can about the world. I read to learn. Fortunately, I love to read, and say maybe reading (and learning) is a labor of love after all.

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  1. After reading a previous post of yours about the Story of Civilization, I decided to finally tackle these books myself this spring. I inherited the set from my grandmother twenty-five years ago, and they’ve patiently waited for me to open them all these years. I’ve just finished Volume II — the Life of Greece. The writing is so good … and wise. What’s made this incredibly special for me to encounter my grandmother’s notes in the margins as I read. I’m pretty sure I inherited her love of reading. A special history on multiple levels…. Thank you for the nudge, Jamie.

    1. Bob, the writing is what hooked me in the end. And how fascinating it must be to see your grandmother’s marginal notes. My volumes are also filled with notes, but they are my own. Maybe one day my grandkids will get to experience the books with those notes, as you have. I’m glad you are enjoying the books.


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